Between Stolen Breaths

Vanessa Damilola Macaulay

A memory. It was Tuesday 30th June 2020, day 108 of isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic: I have severe asthma and therefore fall into the high-risk category for COVID-19. I had been preparing to give a paper at an online colloquium to fellow colleagues at Queen Mary, University of London (the first of what I now assume will be a format where online conferences and otherwise will take place). I had begun researching Black theatre companies at the beginning of the year and decided to put together some provocations about the conditions of Black British theatre and performance through an analysis of salt. by Selina Thompson.

As time folded into days and days in isolation, death became a daily reminder of the precarious position of blackness in Britain and beyond. Sat in front of my computer looking at a screen, I spoke about the timeline of Black death, and my breath changed. I stumbled over the words. I began to push out breath to speak. I pushed past the words that I stumbled and stuttered, repeated. I pushed back tears. I pushed past, although I wanted to stop. I reminded myself that positioning Black performance in Britain was inextricably linked with the structural and material inequalities of blackness. This is the work that needs to be done. What I had to contend with was—and remains—more complex than a simple recognition, and it felt too heavy on my body, on my chest. I can’t breathe. I pause. Only weeks later was I able to process that experience and begin to consider what is at stake in between my breaths.


As an asthmatic, I’m familiar with the feeling of gasping for air. I remember as a child, when I didn’t want my mum to know my breathing had deteriorated (so I didn’t miss out on school, social events and dance rehearsals), I would try and imitate a normal breathing pattern. I would take small, shallow breaths through my mouth to try and hide the audible wheeze. Obviously, my mum would always know when I tried to fake it. Disappointed by my inability to pretend, even momentarily, I would stay at home in my bed and concentrate on just breathing as if it were a punishment. Breath, for me, became the semiotic language of exclusion. Only recently has my mum discussed the impact of asthma on my childhood experiences. She also revealed she knew when I was lying about my breathing, because the muscles around my neck would tense up.


My struggle for breath was visible and often painful. I spent a lot of my childhood in hospital leading to a traumatic asthma attack when I was eighteen. The familiar routine of calling an ambulance, being rushed into resuscitation to continue oxygen, nebulisers and intravenous steroids, which would normally control my breathlessness and increase my oxygen levels after a few hours. However, on this occasion, nothing seemed to be working. After hours of constant oxygen and intermittent nebulisers, I was still struggling for breath. My body became too tired. My chest, neck and stomach muscles had been drawing in breath and pushing it out.  Doctors decided to try an invasive procedure: a mask was sealed tight to my face and air was forcibly, and painfully pushed into my lungs. I was very distressed as I no longer had control over my breath. I knew no matter how painful or laboured my breathing was, if I was in control of it, I would continue to fight to breathe. Relinquishing control felt like I was giving up. I panicked. I began to desperately grab at the mask to raise alarm and the doctors removed it. As a last resort, before my body gave up on the struggle, I was put into an induced coma (initially for 24 hours for my body to rest) but due to further complications, I remained in a coma for eight days.

While my personal memory offers an embodied experience of the effect of breathlessness from a medical condition, I’m interested on how that might inform my performance practice, particularly during a time where my condition has forced my isolation. How do I respond to this idea of breathlessness and continue to make work during this time? Another way of asking this might be: what sort of tactics are required to explore breathlessness when it threatens not only my way of making work but life more broadly? Putting public health in conversation with performance is useful as it provokes an engagement with bodies. It necessitates the visceral and material consequences that make bodies marginalised and legible in certain spaces; these two things are intimately linked with my own practice. I’m concerned with how breath and breathlessness are linked to larger questions around human life.

Reflecting on the summer of 2020, I think about how can Black life still be under threat? In moments of crisis, of isolation, of deep uncertainty, the only thing that remains certain to me, is that nowhere in the world is it safe to be Black. Discourses of disease and pollution are disseminated with reports of the coronavirus and the disproportionate death rate among ‘BAME communities’, which are entangled with the language of fear and contamination. I used to feel safe in my home and then images of Breonna Taylor spill out of my laptop and my phone. Nowhere in the world is it safe to be Black. When the usual noise of life is muted and we are forced into a silence, to stop, to reimagine. It is here, in these moments of stasis, where people all over the world began to think, and rethink, what it simply means to be human.

Nowhere in the world is it safe to be Black. The filmed asphyxiation of George Floyd on the 25th May 2020 was the catalyst for a series of Black Lives Matter protests on both sides of the Atlantic. All of a sudden, the lived experiences of Black people around the world started to become visible in a distinctive way. George Floyd’s last moments were caught on camera as he said (more than eleven times) that he could not breathe as police officer, Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck. For this to happen during a time of a global pandemic caused by COVID-19 which produces acute respiratory distress, reminds me we have nothing left to lose. When we bring breath to our consciousness, whether through illness or state violence, we call attention to the temporality of life.


The etymology of the plea ‘I can’t breathe’ from Eric Garner in 2014 and then repeated by George Floyd in 2020, implies that care and justice, and even more simply, the right to breath; is not afforded to Black people. The critical understanding of how breath might be tied to anti-blackness is found in the work Black theorists, such as Saidiya Hartman and Hortense Spillers.1 Both scholars employ the sense of fungibility when theorising the effect of the transatlantic slave trade on Black subjectivity. Fungibility, in economic terms, refers to goods or products that are substitutable for one another. That is to say, by examining how the transatlantic slave trade transformed Black bodies into a commodity, Black life became equated with the non-human. Spillers writes that enslaved people were considered as ‘neither female, nor male, [but] as quantities’ in the calculation of capital and profit.2 In thinking through history in this way, the temporality of Black life thus was produced in the Middle Passage when Black bodies who were ill (and therefore unprofitable) were thrown overboard ships and into the Atlantic Sea.


Frantz Fanon, in the conclusion of Black Skin, White Masks offers a reason to revolt. He writes, revolt ‘quite simply … because it became impossible … to breathe, in more than one sense of the word.’3 By connecting the difficulty of breathing with the possibilities of revolt, Fanon articulates a survival strategy for Black people.

The reverberated echoes of Fanon’s writing can be seen throughout this year. During the summer, the revolt saw thousands of people wearing protective face coverings while marching in a number of protests across the UK and US. Despite the risk of contracting COVID-19, the risk to Black life is far greater. Revolts have continued to spread across the globe, notably in Nigeria with protests to #EndSars.4 Nowhere in the world is it safe to be Black. To breathe goes beyond a simple biological function of life. To me, it articulates a desire to exist in our bodies and dismantle the apparatus of western modernity from the social and material foundations it has been built upon. Demanding the right to breathe, to be human, is to challenge racial and social injustices that weaponise breath. The protests during a pandemic demonstrate that there can be no rest if human rights and practices of humanity are not afforded to Black people across the globe.


A ritual. I clean the space and tape out 2 x 2 m square with white tape. A safe space? In the square I place three bowls. One bowl contains natural clay, the other two bowls have cold water. I sit down and break off a small piece of clay. I put it into the middle bowl of water. I break off more clay and put it into the same bowl. I repeat this process, over and over, until all the clay is submerged in water. I take a deep breath in. I sink my hands into the third bowl containing water. I breathe out. I wash my hands and scoop up some water. I place my hands around my neck and wipe the water across it. Cleansing. I take a deep breath in. I put my hand into the bowl containing the clay and begin to smear it across neck. I repeat this process, alternating between clay and water, until I have covered my neck in this second skin. As the clay dries, I feel it get tighter around my neck. I stand up and set a timer for eight minutes and 46 seconds and begin to shout.


Vanessa Damilola Macaulay is a performance practitioner and PhD student at Queen Mary University of London. Her research is concerned with Black feminist performance practices in the UK and US. Her work investigates Black artists and their performance-making strategies that creatively disrupt fixed notions of performance and live art. She uses both practice-based and written approaches to challenge the imbalances of intersectional identities, speaking to contemporary struggles and anxieties about the performing Black body.

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  1. Hartman, Saidiya, Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in Nineteenth Century America. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Spillers, Hortense. Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)
  2. Spillers, Hortense. Black, white and in Color: Essays on American literature and culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) p.215
  3. Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin White Masks, (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p.176
  4. #EndSARS is social movement that saw thousands of people protest against police brutality in Nigeria in October 2020. The hashtag spread across social media with the demand to end of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a unit within the Nigerian Police. Social media was used to increase visibility of the extreme violence and abuse of power by SARS officers.

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